If you're reading this, you've the survived the midterm election cycle. As we go from a multi-million dollar sector to a multi-billion dollar sector, the digital lessons of this cycle shifted from proof of concept to something more complicated.
This is the first cycle where political digital came out of the Wild West; digital is now quasi-regulated and, by default, part of most media plans. We consolidated among a handful of large players with large capacity and many boutique shops, pushing out the folks in between.
The problem we face as an industry is not whether this works. That's been proven. Rather, the challenges we face in 2018 are about staffing an organization that takes in fifty percent of its revenue in a two-month window, and preventing bad players from privacy violations, election law violations, and selling products that simply don't exist.
This was the cycle where digital players had to act like grown-ups.
Washington and Maryland took the strongest positions in digital disclosure legislation just ahead of campaign season, and most of the industry was unprepared. This left advertising platforms three options: (1) pull out, (2) invest heavily in legal resources, or (3) feign ignorance and hope to get through the campaign cycle unprosecuted.
To be clear, few in our space object to filing a special form or submitting extra reporting, but it is my belief that increased costs for smaller shops will hurt business and compliance. We chose door number two, but not everyone did. In the absence of FEC or congressional action, digital oversight will get worse and you'll see major platforms pull out of other states and smaller consultants without legal resources risk prosecution in the next campaign cycle.
Speaking of repairing the mistakes of 2016, please stop emailing voter data. It's the dumbest, most common security violation of the cycle, and the most easily avoided.
We believe that a screen is a screen, no matter if it's attached to a wall, on our desktop, or in your pocket. A number of firms, including ours, have constructed planning and buying tools that embrace this concept. But the decades-old pecking order in campaigns dictates that the general consultant or television consultant has the greatest control of the budget, which means 2018 was not the year of the four-screen approach to media buying. It will happen because Reach is King, but you'll see it embraced in the commercial space first.
We also learned in 2018 that OTT (Over The Top) is getting closer, but it's not there yet. As an industry, we have the inventory, and we have the data. Mixing the two at the household level doesn't work well yet but it will soon. The pipes are already built to deliver on Apple TV apps, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and others. The OTT companies are here (and wildly over-promising), but as market demand grows for household level targeting you will see this tactic grow as a line item exponentially by 2020.
The "F Elections" mug on my desk sums up social media's approach to this cycle. While the personnel at the social media giants are top-notch and widely appreciated, we all know they're here out of necessity. Mark Zuckerberg told reporters in May that his company will lose money running political ads. If the goal was to imply they don't want our community's business, mission accomplished.
We reduced our spends on social media, because fulfilling their impossible task of defining “political” communications drove our public affairs clients crazy. When you see year-end revenue numbers from them, you'll see we were not alone.
Hire smart people with more energy than you, because I learned this year that 42 is too old to live on Red Bull and Oreos. Political digital spending grew at about 50 percent from the 2016 cycle, and history would suggest that 2020 will blow past $5 billion. We have a lot of room to grow; it was only this year that annual total campaign spending has finally and decisively exceeded annual spending on Hello Kitty.
The challenge all of us have is not in selling that much, but in building capacity to legally and faithfully execute and report on digital buys of that magnitude.
Jordan Lieberman is a VP at a4 Media.